Those who have read my previous blogs will know that my espoused methodological approach to MFL instruction is situated in the Skill-building paradigm and is a combination of CLT and Focus on forms (not ‘form’). However, I have indeed tried out Project Based Learning on a number of occasions in the past, with varying success. Although I see serious advantages to this pedagogical approach there are serious threats to its effectiveness, which are partly intrinsic to the nature of the tasks set and partly to the way they are implemented by the teachers and managed by the learners.
The following are, in my opinion, the 8 most important steps to take in the implementation of Project Base Learning in order to control for such threats and enhance its learning impact on L2 learner proficiency. In what follows, I will only focus on pedagogical recommendations which relate to the specifics of target language acquisition I will not concern myself with other aspects of the planning of PBL, which pertain to the realm of metacognition, collaboration, enquiry and other generic skills.
1. Make sure that you decide on a core set of target language items and plan carefully for their recycling
One of the dangers of project-based learning (henceforth PBL) is the relative lack of control the teacher has over the language the students will process receptively and produce. Whilst one might see it as an advantage, as the students are being creative with the language, there are two problems with this. Firstly, a learner needs to process any given lexical items several times (somewhere between five and ten times) in order to learn it. Secondly, if we are to test the learners fairly at some point to assess how much has been learnt in the process, the students must have been exposed to a common core of vocabulary and grammar structures.
Insufficient recycling of language is the most common and serious pitfall of PBL. Students will not learn much. I used to have a colleague long ago whose students became very creative indeed in terms of graphics, photography, filming and use of digital media. However, their retention of anything they had written in the process was very poor. Had my colleague found ways to recycle at least a core set of vocabulary and grammar structures she would have obtained a great artefact whilst enhancing her students’ target language vocabulary and structural repertoire.
At the very outset of the project, on communicating to the students the project brief, teachers should be clear about the linguistic goals of the projects. Obviously, it is crucial to set realistic linguistic goals for the learners, as in PBL it is not rare to see students work at linguistic levels which are way beyond their current level of language competence.
- Plan for the integration of ALL 4 macro-skills and embed grammar and communicative functions
This point refers to another potential issue with PBL, the fact, that is, that often the medium one chooses for the project kind of drives the way the students process the language. Hence, if one decides to produce a movie to answer the big question that the project is meant to address, the students involved may simply focusing on writing a script and reading it aloud. However, as language teachers, we have the ethical imperative to forge a balanced linguist who is versed fairly equally in all four skills. Hence, teachers need to plan carefully for the integration of all four skills in the project.
As I have already pointed out in a past blog on digital learning, speaking and listening are indeed the two areas of linguistic competence that are usually neglected the most. Curriculum designers and teachers working in the PBL paradigm need to ensure that these two important macro-skills are not neglected in the process.
- Minimize ‘digital manipulation’ in the actual lesson
As I have already discussed extensively in previous posts (e.g. “Six useless things foreign language teachers do”), excessive ‘digital manipulation’ which occurs concurrently with language processing is likely to cause divided attention and will, consequently, impede learning. This is particularly the case with pre-intermediate to lower-intermediate learners. This phenomenon is due to the limited channel capacity of learners’ Working Memory who cannot attend simultaneously to various cognitively challenging tasks. Most ‘digital manipulation’ (e.g. App smashing) ought to be done by students outside lesson time, unless the presence of the teacher is absolutely necessary and the disruption to learning is deemed to be ‘minimal’.
- Emphasize language acquisition as the main goal of the project
The concern for the attainment of a well-manufactured finished product that PBL often – but not always – entails does on many occasions hijack the focus of the lesson away from the ultimate goal of MFL teaching, which is target language acquisition. This needs to be in the teachers and students’ focal awareness throughout the process, and tactics must be implemented to verify that each lesson is actually enhancing learner target language proficiency; hence, formative assessment must permeate the whole process and summative assessment needs to be implemented, too, at key moments. After all, PBL should be about the language and skills that are learnt in the process of carrying out the project, not about the final product.
- Make sure everyone in the group contributes
When PBL is carried out in groups some students often complain, at the end of the project, that not everyone contributed equally. It may be useful to require the students to keep a journal in which they must, at the end of each lesson, log in, in as much detail as possible, the extent of their contributions to the team’s effort. In my experience this is an effective way to scaffold fair and effective collaboration, especially if the journal is taken into account in the final evaluation.
- Control for unethical behavior
In this day and age, a lot of PBL will be conducted using the Internet. This increases the risk of plagiarism and online-translator use. At the outset of my past PBL experiences, I asked my students to sign an ‘agreement’ in which they pledged never to use online translator nor plagiarize any source during the project. Believe it or not, this symbolic act does usually pay off.
- Ensure the language assessment is valid and fair
For a test to be valid and fair, it must test students on what they have been taught. Hence, if we are teaching students through PBL, we need to be careful about how we test them at the end of the process. To simply assess them through the finished product is not valid, as the finished product does not tell us anything about how the process has enhanced their target language proficiency and about what they have retained. Nor can we test our students using traditional tests (e.g. the ones found in textbooks’ assessment packs), unless we have taught them through tasks similar to the ones used to test them. I have had colleagues in the past, who would do a project with their students on the same topic that the other instructors were teaching through different approaches whilst knowing that the end-of-unit test they would be sitting would have been based on the assessments found in the textbook-in-use (e.g. Expo, Tricolore, etc.). Not surprisingly, their students did not perform well.
- Provide clear guidelines as to how the project is going to be assessed
I put this last, as I believe this is obvious. However, a colleague of mine advised me to add this in as, in her opinion, this does not always happen. At the very outset of the project the students ought to be told how they are going to be assessed and should be talked through any rubrics or other evaluative procedures used to feedback on the final product. In my experience, the students should be reminded several times along the way of the criteria that will be used in the assessment in order to scaffold good quality and collaboration.